Coffee and Insulin – How Caffeine Intake Affects Weight Loss


How does your morning start? Mine does with a cup of coffee. The black nectar also accompanies my workouts, my busy evenings when I have to work late, my headache treatments, and even my recovery shakes. I know I am not alone in this. In the past 6 decades, researchers have conducted more than 21,000 studies on its signature stimulant caffeine – that’s an average of one new study a day. If there is a disease, chances are that someone has already tried to link the effects of caffeine on it. Cancers, heart disease, infertility, brain malfunction, asthma, migraines, gallbladder disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, high and low blood pressure, Diabetes, obesity have been on this list blackened by the morning drink. You’ve been warned to stay away from drinking anything that resembles funeral color, given tips on how to gradually get off the bean, the adventurous ones have even checked out chicory and dandelion drinks. Now, was it worth the effort? Hold your mug and keep reading.

Calorie-Free Insulin Surges
The issue of coffee’s impact on blood sugar and Insulin levels has been brewing for a while and the arguments are steaming on both grounds. Short-term metabolic studies showed that caffeine intake can acutely lower Insulin Sensitivity and sometimes even raise blood sugar levels. One study published in Diabetes Care found that taking 70 grams of coffee grounds for 4 weeks increased fasting Insulin concentrations in 40 healthy volunteers without substantially effecting fasting glucose concentrations. The researchers suggested that such results reflect decreased Insulin Sensitivity from high caffeine intake. What’s worse, after just 5 days of regular supplementation the body’s blood glucose control system may become tolerant to the effects of caffeine. If for whatever reason you would want to get off the bean, be aware that a sudden withdrawal can cause headaches, irritability, anxiety, depression, drowsiness and fatigue.

Should you worry? Absolutely not. A growing body of evidence suggests that a habit of drinking a lot of coffee every day is associated with higher Insulin Sensitivity and a lower risk for Type II Diabetes. After analyzing data on 126,000 people for as long as 18 years, Harvard researchers calculated that compared to people who do not partake in world’s favorite wake-up drink, those who consume 1 – 3 cups of caffeinated coffee daily can reduce Diabetes risk by up to 10%. Having 6 cups or more each day slashed men’s Diabetes risk by 54% and women’s by 30% over java abstainers.

Coffee’s way of life in our body’s is as dark as the color of the drink. You have your brew and for a few hours feel energized, awake, happy burning fat stores while being in the Insulin Resistant state. Repeat the morning java habit endless number of times, and within a few months or years your Insulin Sensitivity is heightened and your risk of developing Type II Diabetes goes down significantly. How can we explain it? Coffee has caffeine, but its effects are somewhat different from the pure chemical. The beans are loaded with antioxidants (a group of compounds called quinines), tocopherols, and Magnesium, all of which have shown to improve glucose metabolism and the body’s response to Insulin in clinical settings. Chlorogenic acid (also found in blueberries) and trigonelline (also found in peas, lentils, soybeans, and sunflower seeds), two of the major phytochemicals in coffee, are probably the most powerful bunch and have shown to decrease blood glucose and Insulin concentrations in the blood compared to placebo after ingesting sugar, it is likely that these increase Insulin Sensitivity. Wow, go coffee!

Jacked-up Workouts
Coffee and other drinks with its active stimulant caffeine (or the herbal counterpart Guarana) can help delay fatigue, contribute to increased alertness and faster reaction time, thus cater an outstanding mental boost famous for helping athletes through vigorous training sessions. Science has established that caffeine has numerous physiological and psychological effects on the Central Nervous System – it easily crosses the blood-brain barrier where it blocks the relaxing neurotransmitter adenosine by binding to its receptors on the surface of cells without activating them. By doing so, caffeine “excites” the Nervous System and has shown to numb the pain, increase heart rate and stimulate the release of adrenal hormones (Epinephrine, Norepinephrine, Cortisol) which may help you crank up your workout intensity and get that last extra rep, postpone fatigue, decrease the perceived difficulty of the exercise and leave the gym without feeling exhausted. Nevertheless, this is not the only reason I add a couple of espresso shots to my pre-workout shake.

Although caffeine is not a carbohydrate and has zero calories, it does stimulate the pancreas to secrete a small amount of Insulin, particularly if you are prone to Insulin Resistance and hyper-Insulism. The reason it happens is that drinking coffee enhances the effect of two hormones, Adrenaline and Glucagon, which release stored sugar (glycogen) from the liver and a small amount of energy from fat stores resulting in higher blood sugar and elevated Insulin. By this mechanism, caffeine decreases Insulin Sensitivity, however this happens only for a brief period of time and is a normal biological response. Adrenaline and Glucagon also go up when you are stressed or during exercise. Even a simple walk will decrease Insulin Sensitivity, but no-one got Insulin Resistance from exercising. If anything, physical activity is praised for its impact on Adrenaline and Nor-adrenaline since these chemical messengers get the body fats “moving” from the stored places to the bloodstream. From here, it’s a short trip for the fat to get out of the system – you can easily use it as fuel. As it turns out, the caffeine-induced Insulin Resistance is just a result of increased circulating free fatty acids which can be burned off during training. For that matter, coffee has been used for years by endurance athletes, bodybuilders, boxers, powerlifters and dieters and has been researched as an excellent thermogenic, or the supplement which may help burn body fat.

In case all of the above benefits are not enough justification for you to enjoy the most delectable drink, there is another reason how you may resolve your workout issues by sipping your cup of java – a caffeinated body may burn calories at a higher rate. The black nectar gives you a nice punch at the gym, so your intensity is super high, plus it stimulates a cascade of hormones that release of free fatty acids into the bloodstream causing the body to burn fat while sparing carbohydrates to use as energy. Subjects who consumed 300 mg of caffeine 2 hours before exercising on a stationary bike for 30 minutes were not only able to work out at a higher intensity, but they also used a much greater percentage of body fat for fuel. Another study found that the caffeine in 2 cups of coffee may cause an average woman to expend up to 50 extra calories over the next 4 hours. The important part here is exercise – not a revelation, I know, but it’s an important point. No one loses fat using caffeine supplements alone and you are much better off drinking coffee before the workout than before a sedentary activity.

One terrific thing you can get from training and caffeine intake is that the temporary dip in Insulin Sensitivity primes the body to become even more responsive to nutrient intake afterwards. Think about it – when you train, the body wants to get rid of fuel from fat cells, but increase its ability to take in and replace what’s lost as fast as possible afterwards. The fat cell’s “machinery” is not designed to store and release fuel at the same time, which would be counter-productive. Put differently, during training and after caffeine ingestion you are in the Insulin Resistant state which is replaced by Insulin Sensitive state once the activity or the action of the supplement stops. This premise is the reason why you are advised to re-fuel within an hour of finishing training while being muscle cells become extremely sensitive to Insulin and the nutrients carried by the hormone and thus can soak up the food like sponges.

Regardless of whether you train in the caffeinated state or not, exercise itself reduces the detrimental effects of caffeine. The body in motion depends on a special metabolic pathway, called non-Insulin dependent glucose uptake, which literally negates any Insulin-related disturbances caused by the stimulant. You know that nothing beats a good workout for fat loss and muscle gain. So, bodybuilders who, by all accounts, are truly unique beasts, shouldn’t worry about their stimulants or Insulin fluctuations from taking these. As a matter of fact, caffeine can serve them well in helping store glycogen, the primary muscle fuel.

Java-Spiced Recovery
For the first time researchers from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia showed that a small group of 7 well-trained endurance cyclists who ingested caffeine (8 mg per kilogram of body weight, the equivalent of drinking 5 – 6 cups of strong coffee) with carbohydrate had 66% more glycogen in their muscles 4 hours after finishing intense, glycogen-depleting exercise, compared to when they consumed carbohydrate alone. And for the entire 4-hour recovery period, the caffeinated drink resulted in higher levels of blood glucose and plasma Insulin. “If you have 66% more fuel for the next day’s training or competition, there is absolutely no question you will go farther or faster,” said Dr. Hawley, the study’s senior author. Another thing researchers noted was that 1 hour after exercise, muscle glycogen levels had replenished to the same extent whether or not the athletes had the drink containing carbohydrate and caffeine or carbohydrate only. Looks like coffee may supply a longer-lasting nourishment with the carry-on effect to thrive on till the next workout.

Now that may seem like a breakthrough concept, but here’s the deal. Let’s not discredit that the number of participants in this fairy recent research was rather small, the caffeine dose was very high, and most of us do not ride in the same highly-trained bike camp. Additionally, anybody is going to achieve that level of glycogen absorption within a day after a workout anyways. I think that the only reason for you to add caffeine to the post-workout meal would be if you are going to exercise again within 4 hours after the first workout. Even if you’re training every day, you have 24 hours to replenish your carbohydrate stores and there’s no essential need to dump a bunch of caffeine into your system. By the way, the overall intake of nutrients is much more important for recovery than the amount or time of caffeine intake.

With that said, although it won’t help you store more fuel and at the end you will still end up with the same amount of glycogen in the muscles, caffeine might expedite the process and thus jump-start the recovery after training. Better yet, moderate doses of caffeine have shown to cut post-workout muscle soreness by up to 48%, according to a study published in The Journal of Pain. Drinking just 2 cups of coffee 1 hour before exercise appeared to be more effective than several commonly used pain relievers – aspirin and naproxen produced a 25% and 30% reduction in soreness, respectively, and ibuprofen has produced inconsistent results. If you are okay with drinking a few cups of coffee before and after training and find pleasure in running on all engines while still being able to fall asleep by midnight, I say – go for it!

Coffee With Meals
While caffeine intake certainly won’t make you fat, Insulin Resistant or Diabetic, regardless of who you are, it may increase your glucose and Insulin responses to meals and therefore thwart the effects of your hard-core training. Coffee by itself has a pleasant bitter taste, but its aroma really comes out when you have something sweet and fatty with it, like frothed milk and a doughnut. It sure tastes good, but the effect is only short-lived so eating that dessert with coffee will make you not just fat, but Insulin Resistant if you don’t exercise. In sedentary individuals, especially those with a traditional Western diet high in sugar and saturated fats, elevated concentrations of circulating Epinephrine and free fatty acids in response to caffeine may negatively affect glucose tolerance and drive Insulin and blood sugar up after meals. In one study, subjects ingested a sugary beverage after a high-fat meal, their blood glucose levels were only 32% higher compared to subjects who had water in place of the high-fat meal. In the second part of the study, subjects were given 2 cups of caffeinated coffee in addition to the high-fat meal and sugary beverage – this time, blood glucose doubled and was 65% higher than in the subjects who had only water before the sugary drink. I know that eating a doughnut or anything sweet and buttery by itself is an insult on the body, but as it appears that cops got it wrong all along with their signature energy fix and probably would be in better shape if they switched to less fattening bagels and coffee, at least. And their bodies could turn heads if they cycled to crime spots or chose to lift weights as a stress busting activity – exercise changes everything, especially eating behavior. I can bet that a ripped huge bodybuilder has more caffeine than blood in his veins, and each of his meals can feed the family of the obese five. What gives? The food quality – every ingredient in a bodybuilding meal plan has undergone a thorough inspection, been measured and prepared according to the highest standards of nourishment control.

coffee-insulin-bagelOf course, nutrition makes up to 80% of your body composition, but without training all of your most conscientious dieting efforts will not give you a single gram of rock-hard muscle mass and shut down the Insulin receptive factory. The harder the intensity, the more weight you can lift, and the slower you can bring it back to the starting position, the better you can control your Insulin Sensitivity beautifully drawing the route for caloric destination in your body. That’s how even the sloppiest weight lifters may get away with eating doughnuts and drinking Venti Latte’s 24/7 – provided they train heavy and allow enough time for recovery.

Can’t stuff that doughnut down your throat? Have it with a cup of coffee. For some, it tastes better that way, but that’s not the reason. Coffee stimulates digestive juices and helps you with various unpopular food-related bloating problems. If you have troubles settling that breakfast oatmeal with milk and fruit, start with the morning drink and enjoy your second most important meal of the day (post-workout meal comes first, in case you forgot). The drink also relaxes the walls of the blood vessels and the airways in the lungs, elevates heart rate and metabolism and increases the force of muscular contractions.

And the last drop to fill the cup: a significant number of respectable studies prove that moderate coffee consumption doesn’t increase risk of heart attack or cancer, contrary to false alarms in the past. In fact, it may actually do the reverse and might even help prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, as well as certain cancers due to its antioxidant properties. Caffeine is used in migraine medications and certain headache treatment formulas, it does not dehydrate the body, although the myth still circulates around. Most caffeinated drinks put far more fluids into the body then take out of it. Coupled with the all noted benefits, coffee sounds like a winner to me.

Lots of people say that they drink coffee for its high caffeine content. Others just love the taste, aroma, flavor, and full-bodied richness of the drink. Then there are coffee junkies who simply don’t know when and why they got hooked on java. Scientifically speaking, you can get addicted to this popular drug in the same way you can get addicted to TV, or to Twitter, to your I-pod, to a song, or to a certain type of ice-cream. In other words, there is no such thing as biological addiction to caffeine and even at the highest possible dose it will be metabolized and excreted within 24 hours. Still, if you’ve been drinking more coffee, tea and soda than water for a long time and then suddenly stop it altogether, expect symptoms of withdrawal – headaches, fatigue, lack of energy, drop in blood pressure. If you have some health problems and are thinking about going decaf, do so gradually and please, see your doctor to ensure that there are no other concerns before it’s too late. If you are generally healthy and haven’t joined the coffee club, but used other ways of getting caffeine into your system, now is the time to change.

When it comes to Insulin management, overall health and well-being, provided the choice, my preference would fall in favor of clean fresh black coffee over artificially produced or otherwise isolated caffeine which I would use just before training only. Besides the main active stimulating ingredient and the aroma, there is so much good stuff in the black drink. One study published in the 2006 Journal of Nutrition demonstrated that caffeine alone produced greater blood glucose and Insulin levels than caffeinated coffee, and decaffeinated coffee resulted in 50% lower glucose response than placebo. This means that unlike its active ingredient caffeine, coffee possesses a unique glucose and insulin sparing effect. The researchers concluded that these results help explain why chronic coffee consumption is associated with lower rates of Diabetes.

Haven’t tasted the coffee that you liked? Then you never tried the one made right. Learn to prepare your own brew (there is plenty of information on the internet) and, as they say it, “once you go black, you’ll never go back” – whatever than means. Where do you start? With the bean, of course. Out of the nearly 100 different varieties of coffee beans, only 2 make their way to the cup. Arabica, known for its deep, complex flavor, is the most popular sort and accounts for about 75% of the beans sold throughout the world. Robusta is a cheaper bean usually considered a filler and often lurks in the canisters you buy in the supermarket. If you need an energy spike without calories and high Insulin, make your own coffee with Arabica beans, as they contain less caffeine but have plenty of other beneficial compounds not found in caffeine pills.

coffee-insulin-beansDepending on the origin of the coffee bean, coffees can have a more nutty, spicy or floral aroma, different levels of acidity or “brightness” making them either lively or smooth. Roast color affects the richness of the coffee, making it light and crisp or full-bodied and rich. If you care about coffee, you have to grind the beans right before you make it. That’s right – buy whole beans that have been roasted within the 2 weeks of purchase, put them into a grinder and grind them up. As soon as the beans are ground, the coffee oils are exposed to air which can dry them bad screwing up the chemistry. Coffee, the manly drink, is as fragile as a woman’s heart, so treat it with care. From this point, you can be your own chef and do whatever you want with the black powder – it’s pretty much the matter of taste or how much caffeine you would like to extract. Before you proceed, here’s the kicker, the coffee secret that nobody knows: to get the rich and smooth flavor, sprinkle a pinch of salt on the top of the coffee grounds and you’ll be surprised.

A standard cup of drip coffee may have 80 – 150 mg of caffeine depending on the bean used, the size of your cup, how strong it is and how it is made. The French press method, for example, is known to produce more caffeine than other techniques. Real Italian espresso coffee with around 77 mg per shot produces a lower Insulin response because the high pressure of steam causes the ground coffee to release its flavor in concentrated form without releasing too much caffeine at the same time. A teaspoon of instant coffee will give you just 55 mg of caffeine, but I don’t think this muddy drink deserves the name.

As a comparison, the average energy drink contains nearly 4 times the amount of caffeine found in commercial soda beverages ranging from 22 mg in Diet A&W Cream Soda to 118 mg in Vault Soda. Certain types of tea and chocolate may be surprisingly energizing – Java Chai, for example, contains 120 mg of caffeine per serve, while a cup of Lipton Brisk Green Tea has 10 mg. Even some medications have caffeine: 56 – 120 milligrams for a standard dose of over-the-counter pain relievers.

Caffeine is the main ingredient in the great majority of diet pills and pre-workout supplements used by bodybuilders. Typically, the manufacturer’s list the chemical as “Methyl Xanthines” or simple “Xanthines” and should reveal how much of good stuff each pill contains, but since the industry is not regulated, don’t believe everything that’s written (including the stuff you are reading right now, although I hope I’ve put enough work to gain your trust for your own benefit). If you are curious, you may find the amount of caffeine in just about any drink here:

Another point not to forget is that coffee will do all the above provided you drink it black, not the whitish, tan, foamy stuff made with milk, skim milk, soy milk, half and half, cream, non-dairy creamer, sugar, different types of sugar-free sugar, honey, syrups flavoured with stuff that you can’t pronounce, powdered vanilla, chocolate, and a dozen of other additives. Stirring in just about everything known to man not only adds calories and can cause your Insulin levels to rise, but also stops the body to use previously stored sugars and fats which diminishes that metabolic effect.

Dose of Caffeine: 
How much coffee you should drink each day is a matter of speculation. A plantation full of studies has found that 3 – 6 cups of mild coffee a day decrease your risk of Type II Diabetes by up to 50%. A team of Japanese researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that 3 – 4 cups of coffee daily provided greater protection against liver cancer than did 1 or 2. The amount of caffeine that’s necessary to have a good ergogenic or a sports performance enhancing response ranges from 3 to 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For a small-sized bodybuilder, that’s a lot of caffeine to have in one go. Try to drink 5 cups of coffee, or 15 Pepsi cans and have a mind-blowing workout!

More is not better – a Dartmouth Medical School, US, study found that 400 mg of caffeine a day (about 8 espressos) decreases Insulin Sensitivity by 35%. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, some people can experience caffeine intoxication symptoms – including restlessness, nervousness, excitement, insomnia, flushed face, and gastrointestinal complaints – after ingesting as little as 100 milligrams of caffeine per day. At levels of 1,000 milligrams of caffeine per day, symptoms may include muscle twitching, rapid heartbeats, abnormal electrical activity in the heart, and psychomotor agitation.

Picture how this applies to a real life situation. You wake up in the morning and have a large coffee. If it’s a small cup of drip coffee, you will get away with 100 mg of caffeine, but the Venti size has 480mg of caffeine. A few hours later let’s say you have a diet soda and then another large cup of iced tea at lunch – a total indulgence adds an extra 72 mg per serving, at least. As the day continues, so does the caffeine drip into your system. You decide to hit the gym and ingest an explosive dose of supplements worth of 300 mg before your workout washed down with a double-shot latte. Now, do you take a single or a double thermogenic dose for that super-high intensity? Even at conservative levels the life of an average bodybuilder runs on 1,000 mg of caffeine per day. And that seems to be OK. The lesson I learned is to stop drinking coffee before I kill myself or someone else who comes around.

coffee-insulin-pouringTo stoke your calorie-burning furnace on training days, take 200 – 400 milligrams of caffeine before a workout. Sometimes I like to mix a few shots of fresh espresso into my Whey Protein milk shake for a nice frappuccino flavor and an awesome amino boost. If coffee is not your cup of tea, you can use pure caffeine tablets or take as part of the stimulant-type supplement.

Certain experts in the field recommend to take around 100 mg of caffeine at the end of your workout when you can control which tissue soaks up sugar and which doesn’t. Here, you capitalize on the Insulin Resistance of fat cells and Insulin Sensitivity of muscles. The lean tissues can soak up nutrients like a sponge, and coffee may help with that. The reason why you may skip the post-training dose is that caffeine can stay in the body for about 10 hours, if you have a fully functioning liver, don’t drink alcohol or take steroids which may extend the rate of excretion. Thus, even if you train late at night, the caffeine from the morning coffee is still going to be hanging around in your system.

When you drink coffee matters. The full effect of caffeine reaches the bloodstream about 45 to 60 minutes after you drink a coffee, tea, cocoa or caffeinated soda. At around 15 minutes after that first sip, your brain releases neurotransmitter Dopamine which enhances mental focus and leads to wakefulness peaking after half an hour. So, taken immediately before exercise it may do some pretty incredible things. Before bedtime – not so much.

There has been some recent talk about the effect of caffeine on the supplemental creatine, the “gold nugget” of muscle growth. When you dose creatine, you’re supposed to take in carbohydrate at the same time which facilitates the delivery. Since caffeine actually reduces carbohydrate uptake, you won’t be able to pull much creatine into the muscles. It’s easy to go around the problem – just have your coffee and creatine a few hours apart.

Side Effects: 
Too much of anything can have a negative effect, but if you understand moderation, coffee can be a good friend. Now a word of caution – don’t go too crazy about caffeine or you may become jittery and nervous, that your over-the-edge mental alertness will actually lead to loss of focus and concentration.

High levels of caffeine consumption have been associated with increased risk of stroke, arthritis, insomnia, heart palpitations, tremors, sweating, nausea, diarrhea, chest pain, and neurological symptoms. In addition, by inhibiting the activity of the vitamin folate, B12 and B6, high levels of caffeine may interfere with your body’s ability to regulate two significant cardiovascular disease risk factors: homocysteine and cholesterol. Since caffeine causes blood vessel constriction, it may turn into a deadly poison for people with high stress levels or high blood pressure.

On average, one thing I can say for sure – coffee’s benefits are much more profound than its side effects, when consumed in moderation. It has been repeatedly shown to preserve muscle glycogen during exercise, to improve exercise performance, to raise metabolic rate, to facilitate fat burn and weight loss independent of and during exercise. Don’t try to accelerate the weight-loss process by sipping black coffee all day. Three cups in a day is enough as too much caffeine can cause anxiety, nausea, and headaches.

Remember, though, the benefits of caffeine often fade with habituation. Most studies have shown that complete tolerance to caffeine can develop after about 18 days. Does that mean that all of us who have been living on tea, coffee, chocolate and soft drinks for years are completely immune to all the proclaimed benefits? The short answer is no. In the research people were consuming 900 milligrams of caffeine per day, every day. What happens if you “cycle” caffeine – take more on training days and less during recovery – we don’t know. Then, some people are more sensitive to this and other chemicals than others. From personal experience I can say that coffee is not all that powerful and almighty. There were times when I would fall asleep within an hour of having a triple shot cappuccino, although my heart would be racing at first, and I wasn’t even sleep-deprived or sick. There were other times of mental clarity and superb physical stamina without a single milligram of caffeine in my system. Life is strange.


About Author

Elena Voropay

Elena Voropay is a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Instructor and Certified Nutritionist. She also holds accreditations for her knowledge in Iridology and Herbal Medicine. Elena has conducted presentations and lectured on various health, fitness and science-related topics. See my profile page for more information!

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